Tag Archives: English sounds

A Word Taster’s Companion: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

Today: the fourteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

What’s left? Is that it? Not even close. There are many sounds that people use in language that we haven’t touched. Most of them can be figured out by using new places with the same manners, or new manners with the same places, and a few require even more inventiveness. But while many of them are occasional allophones in English, almost none of them are English phonemes.

Almost none. We do have a couple of sounds left, one of which is definitely a phoneme but is hard to pin down as to its features, and the other of which is easier to pin down for features but may or may not be a phoneme (but is definitely a well-used allophone).

What are they? They are the difference between uh-huh and uh-uh.

That’s a nice minimal pair, as linguists would say. The difference between two opposite things – yes and no – lies in just one sound. The vowels are the same, front and back. To give a thumbs-up, let the air flow through your throat, /ʌhʌ/; to give a thumbs-down, stop it momentarily, /ʌʔʌ/. (You can also say it [ʔʌʔʌ].)

OK, what’s that thing, [ʔ]? It’s a glottal stop. You know the sound well enough. You probably make it in place of the /t/ in button. If you’re a certain kind of British speaker, you make it as an allophone of /t/ in between vowels: [mæʔɜ] for matter, for instance. It stands in for stops in quite a lot of places, in fact; you might even say it for /p/ in yup. You might even use it in something if you say it casually as [sʌʔm] (“supm”). And in some dialects you might use it in place of [h], as in ’Enry.

But is the glottal stop a phoneme – a distinct sound? Or is it just in uh-uh to keep the two vowels as distinct syllables? It’s probably safest to say that [ʔʌ] is an allophone of /ʌ/. But that glottal stop is certainly a sound we use in English!

And how about /h/? It is often called a glottal fricative. The problem is that it doesn’t normally actually involve greater constriction of the airway. And, in English, it doesn’t act like a fricative. English voiceless fricatives can come between a vowel and a stop (mask, raft, wished) and all English fricatives can come at the end of a word (give, biz, rouge), neither of which /h/ can do in modern English (except in special cases like huh and hah, which sometimes end with [h]). In Old English, yes – but that was a thousand years ago. In some other languages it can as well, and for them it’s reasonable enough to treat it as a fricative. But in English it’s its own little special thing, available only by itself at the beginning of syllables (and, in some dialects, often not there). It also has a tendency to be reduced in some circumstances of casual speech to nothing or near nothing. It’s a phoneme, no mistake: you know the difference between an eel on a heel and a heel on an eel. And it’s a consonant – you say a heel, not an heel. But it’s its own special kind of consonant in modern English.

These two sounds, [h] and [ʔ], are a pair notable for their absence not only from the rest of the classification but from actually being heard. Yes, /h/ is audible, but barely, and sometimes not really at all except as a gap in the sound. The glottal stop is simply a break in the flow of the sound: it’s the ultimate absence. There’s not even any enunciatory cue into or out of it – the tongue and lips don’t need to move for it to be made.

It goes without saying that we don’t have voiced variants of these. The surprise is that some languages do have a voiced equivalent for /h/. How is that possible? What it is, in fact, is really a breathy voicing added to the end of the preceding vowel or the beginning of the next. Make a low, lewd laugh – huhuhuhuhuh – and you will likely be alternating between /h/ and breathy voicing.

What do [h] and [ʔ] feel like to say? Exact opposites: /h/ is a perceptible free flow of breath, whereas the glottal stop is a perceptible lack of flow of breath. It does not usually produce a sense of asphyxiation, though it may leave you with extra breath to expel at word’s end. It simply gives a little catch or hiccup in the flow, and there are a variety of flavours that can have. The breath of /h/ will naturally be associated with all things expressed by breathing out: exhaustion, exasperation, excitement, or even ease. It’s so often so gentle as to be just like a brush of a feather – but it always expels extra air, leaving you a little closer to winded.

Next: syllables

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

Today: the thirteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids

Today: the twelfth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Lovely, lyrical liquids

Liquid. Say rarely rural, really, Larry. Oh, come now, you can do it! Why would such flowing sounds cause any trouble?

And they are flowing sounds. English has two phonemes of the type called liquids: /r/ and /l/. Mind you, they do each have more than one allophone.

Liquids are consonants that involve contact or near-contact of the tongue with the palate but allow ample air to pass around – more than for a fricative. They produce no buzz or hiss. You could actually almost drink some kind of liquid (water, beer, wine) while holding your tongue in the position to say a liquid, but the swallowing would cause you to say a nasal instead.

Liquids are lovely, lush, lyrical. You can sing them, though your voice teacher will probably tell you to sing vowels instead. The singability of these sounds means that they can be syllables, and often are. Say burble, turtle, gurgle. If you’re like most Canadians and Americans, your first syllable of each word has not a vowel per se but simply a sustained /r/ with the tongue not really moving during it. And while you may or may not slip in a little vowel – a short schwa – before the /l/ in burble and gurgle, you almost certainly don’t in turtle, where the tongue can maintain the tip contact and simply release the sides to go from the /t/ to the /l/, making the peak of the syllable not a vowel but the liquid /l/.

So why aren’t liquids considered vowels? In the case of /l/, the tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth, so that rules it out. But in both cases, even though they can be peaks of syllables (meaning you can use them where you would use vowels in words like turtle and gurgle), they don’t behave like vowels anywhere else. We use them where we use consonants, at the beginnings and ends of syllables. And liquids aren’t the only consonants that can be the peaks of syllables: we also do it with nasals (like the syllabic /n/ we usually say in button).

We don’t have unvoiced versions of these sounds in English, though they do exist in other languages – Welsh, for instance. Well, let me make a small correction here: we don’t have separate unvoiced phoneme pairs for these. But we do sometimes say unvoiced versions of them, thanks mainly to our habit of aspirating voiceless stops at the beginnings of stressed syllables (remember that from “Stop! What are you doing”? Don’t make me explain it all over again!). If the stop is followed by a liquid rather than a vowel, the aspiration makes at least part of the liquid voiceless. Say play and pray. If you pay attention, you will find that your voice doesn’t really start up again until the ay part – the /l/ and /r/ are said mostly or entirely voiceless.

There are some other allophones of liquids as well. You’re probably used to saying /r/ with your tongue humped up in the middle but not touching (except at the sides). But you’re surely also used to hearing trilled versions, from languages such as Spanish and Italian but also from Scots English and some other kinds. Trills are actually not liquids. They’re functionally similar to liquids and tend to be used in the same ways and places, but the difference between a trill and a liquid is like the difference between dribbling a basketball (trill) and just picking it up and running with it (liquid). Except that you don’t get whistled out for saying a liquid.

A further effect of this is that /r/ can be said in some dialects as tap – rather than a trill, which is multiple bounces, you say just one bounce. This is why some British accents can sound to North Americans like they’re saying “veddy” when they say very: we only use a tap for /d/ and /t/, not for /r/. But it goes both ways: a Yorkshire accent can sound to someone from southern England like it’s saying “gor any” rather than “got any” because they, like North Americans, tap /t/ in that position, while in the standard southern British accent only a /r/ would tap in that position.

To add to the fun, in English we have two kinds of /l/, a “bright” one and a “dark” one. The difference is that the “bright” /l/, which is used at the beginnings of syllables, has the tip up but the back fairly low, whereas the “dark” /l/ has the back well up, and sometimes the tip doesn’t quite touch, especially if it’s before another consonant. Compare la la la la la with all all all all all. And then say elk elk elk elk elk and see how the /l/ is reduced to something almost like /u/ without lip-rounding.

Oh, and speaking of lip-rounding, you will notice, if you observe for a bit, that we normally round our lips to some extent when saying /r/. This makes the sound more distinctive. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say ring. Say it slowly and clearly. Maybe take a little cell phone video of yourself doing it. You will see that your lips are rounded. Now say wring. When you say that, you think of your lips being rounded. And they are. But they’re just as rounded when you say ring.

Liquids are certainly mellifluous sounds, though holding them too long can have a sort of “low class” sound to them, just due to established norms in speaking English. Say “haaaaaaard” and then say “harrrrrrrd.” The latter sounds like what? A pirate, perhaps? Now say “faaaaaaaall” and then say “falllllllllll.” Does it sound like a dog, or like someone’s choking you? The effect is much less, however, at the starts of words: “rrrrrright” and “llllllllush” probably sound simply emphatic, and perhaps even a little upper-class – again, due entirely to association with who is heard to say them when.

What do liquids feel like to say? Well, in theory you can sustain them indefinitely, but in practice you will find that your tongue tires out sooner than you might expect because it’s being held in a tensed position. This is especially true of the “dark” /l/, which can feel a bit like choking. Ultimately, in their fluidity, liquids are rather like the fish in the stream of your speech. They’re slick and smooth and wet, and as lovely as they are to look at you probably won’t enjoy holding them for all that long.

Liquids are called approximants by linguists. But they’re not the only approximants out there. Along with these consonants that can behave like vowels, there are sounds that are vowels behaving like consonants…

A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it

Today: the eleventh installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Ah, frick it

Affricate. I do like this word, affricate, though it actually doesn’t contain the sound it names. “Affricate” is not “African” said with a cold and laryngitis, nor is it an expression of dismay or frustration (“I forget!” “Ah, frick it!”). Well, some affricates may be expressions of dismay – [ts] gets used for this at times – but it’s not essential to their nature. An affricate is a stop that releases to a fricative: a single gesture of the tongue, thought of by the speaker as a single sound, but made of two parts: the tongue moves, making a sort of breaking sound. It’s a consonant equivalent of a diphthong. Judge for yourself: Say “judge” and listen to the consonants in the word – is there more to them than in “dud” or “shush”

We don’t have a lot of affricates in English. If you look at the consonant list in “Sushi thief!” you’ll see a reason why: an affricate requires a stop and a fricative in the same place, and we don’t have that many pairs like that. Actually, we have even fewer than we could. Our only affricate phonemes in English are /tʃ/ and /dʒ/: “ch” and “j.”

We may occasionally say the available other stop-fricative combinations – [ts] and [dz] – and sometimes we may even say them so they’re not across syllable boundaries (as what’s up sometimes becomes ’tsup, for instance). But we don’t think of them as single sounds. In fact, many people will have a resistance to saying them where we can say /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, or will even think they can’t say them because we don’t start syllables with a stop followed by a fricative. Many English speakers have problems saying something like “tsump” and “dzump” – or tsar, or tsunami. But we have no problem saying “chump” and “jump,” or “char” (or “chunami,” if that were a word), even though they’re also a stop plus a fricative in a very similar place in the mouth. This is because we see them – and perform them – as one gesture. You’re saying char, not tshar. It’s the difference between courtship and core chip, for instance. To show in phonetic transcriptions that they’re a single phoneme, sometimes a joining line is written under the two letters. But that’s not supported by many character sets, so you don’t see it all the time.

We also say affricates as versions of stops. For instance, say choo-choo train. You may have noticed that you make the t is as the same sound as the ch. You’ll find the same thing, but voiced, in juju drain. In many places where [t] and [d] release with the tongue flexing towards the palate – nature, gradual, dread – the gesture results in affrication: as you release the stop you make a fricative on the way to the next sound. So our target phoneme is /t/ or /d/ and we have it in mind to say that sound and we hear it as a version of that sound, but it actually comes out as  [tʃ] and [dʒ].

But those aren’t quite the only affricates we have as allophones. Say cute. Now say it with emphasis, especially on the start – draw it out: Cute! Notice how the hump of your tongue is actually fairly far forward in your mouth when you say the [k]? And how air escapes past it as it releases to the vowel? Congratulations. You’ve just made an affricate that most Anglophones can hardly even conceive of existing – even though they make it: a voiceless palatal affricate. (The International Phonetic Alphabet way of writing it is [cç].)

It’s the further progress of that movement, by the way, that led Latin c, originally [k] in all positions, to become [tʃ] before [e] and [i], as it is in Italian and as one hears it in church music. It’s very easy to move [cç] forward just a little more to [tʃ]. (The process was a little different with [sk]: it dropped the stop as it softened up and it became [ʃ] without passing through [stʃ] – which is why excelsis is “ek-shell-cease” and not “ex-chell-cease,” and prosciutto is “pro-shoot-toe” and not “pros-choo-toe.”) That movement, from [k] to [tʃ], is also one way English came to have these affricates; cheap, for instance, is related to words and roots in other Germanic languages that start with [k] – German kauf, for instance.

It also goes in the other direction: the “y” sound as in yes and yellow – written as [j] in IPA – can be made so narrow that it touches the palate and makes an affricate. You can hear this in some dialects of Spanish: llave, [jave], has moved to [dʒave] in some South American versions, and the same accent can cause its speakers to pronounce English with the same effect: for instance, your sounding like jor. This same process is in fact a way that Latin words with j, which was really i in Latin, came to be said with [dʒ] in English.

What do affricates feel and sound like to say? [tʃ] can have a kind of mechanical or metallic crispness, which shows up in chug, cha-ching, and similar words. It sounds like bells, small change, machines… That effect is softened when you add voice, but there can still be a certain sturdiness, as for instance in Jack and jug. I’d say this also draws on the effect produced by a sense of jutting jaw and meeting teeth, which can be a movement you make when you say these sounds. On the other hand, the crispness of the release and the involvement of the most delicate of our stops, [t] and [d], can make these seem light and pretty in the right context, for instance Chelsea and Jennifer.

Consider the different sound effects between guy and chap, or coffee and java. Try swapping in affricates for stops, or vice versa: choffee? Gava, dava? Does it make it feel sturdier or more delicate, or something else entirely? One thing’s sure: that extra little break does add a little more richness to the flavour.

Next: Lovely, lyrical liquids

A Word Taster’s Companion: Sushi thief!

Today: the tenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Sushi thief!

Fricative. Say sushi thief!

Congratulations. You’ve just made all four voiceless fricatives we have in English.

What’s a fricative? It may sound like a name for some fried and sauced meat dish, but the resemblance ends at the hissing and sizzling sound. A fricative is a consonant made by tightly constricting the air stream at some point in the mouth. There are four places where we make fricatives in English, and three of them aren’t places where we make stops or nasals. Two of these places, in fact, involve the teeth, which we don’t use for any other kind of sound.

So: sushi thief. The consonants in this phrase are /s/, /ʃ/, /θ/, and /f/. An equivalent phrase is harder to make for the voiced ones, especially since the voiced partner of the one we normally write sh – /ʃ/ – is relatively new and uncommon in the English phonemic set. None of the voiced ones, in fact, were separate phonemes in Old English. They were all just variants (allophones) of the voiceless ones, just as the tongue tap is a variant of /t/ and /d/ between vowels. But that was then and this is now. Your four voiced fricatives show up in the beige visor, along with /b/ and /r/: /ð/, /ʒ/, /v/, and /z/.

So we can match the consonants we’ve looked at so far by place, voice, and manner:

Bilabials: voiceless stop /p/, voiced stop /b/, nasal /m/

Labiodentals: voiceless fricative /f/, voiced fricative /v/

Dentals (i.e., with tongue): vls fric /θ/, vd fric /ð/

Alveolars: vls stop /t/, vd stop /d/, tap /ɾ/, nasal /n/, vls fric /s/, vd fric /z/

Palatoalveolars (or alveopalatals or postalveolars – there’s a terminology fight ongoing over this): vls fric /ʃ/, vd fric /ʒ/

Velars: vls stop /k/, vd stop /g/, nasal /ŋ/

You will see there are some gaps. We have fricatives where we don’t have other sounds and vice versa. Why is that?

We match the labiodental fricatives to the bilabial stops and nasal, since the teeth are better at letting the air through. Some languages do have bilabial fricatives, but they’re so similar to the labiodental ones, you’ll have either one or the other.

Some languages have stops behind the teeth as well as on the alveolar ridge. We don’t. Many languages don’t have those dental fricatives. We do. So it goes. Not all places in the mouth are equally well suited to all manners of sound; the tips of your teeth don’t make for good stops. But languages can be quite capricious in the sets of sounds they use.

We used to have velar fricatives in English. German still has a voiceless one, as in ach. Some languages (Greek is one) have a voiced velar fricative. We used to as well. Why did they disappear? Probably under the influence of French, which was the language of the ruling class for a while in England and had a huge effect on our vocabulary and pronunciation. It may have taken away, but it also gave – distinct phonemes for the voiced fricatives. In the final reckoning of phonemes we came out ahead, and we didn’t lose our dentals.

Where else can we stick a fricative? You’d be surprised. Welsh has one in the same location as [l]. You can have them farther back than [k], too: back to the back of your throat, even down into it. Some classifications call /h/ a fricative too. It does produce sound in something of the same way, but not really through constriction. And /h/ doesn’t pattern with fricatives in English. For example, you can put a voiceless fricative before [t] at the end of a word – laughed, last, lashed, frothed – but you can’t put /h/ there. (In some languages, yes; in Old English, even, yes; but not in modern English.) What makes a phoneme what it is has a lot to do with how we use it, how we think of it, not just how we make it.

What do fricatives feel and sound like to say? Although they share the hissing sound, the voiceless ones easily divide into two pairs. The ones with the teeth are soft, whiffling like corduroys, but because of their location they tend to be associated with spitting and similar acts (and /f/ is forever associated with a well-known vulgarity, but that’s another level we have yet to get to). The ones by the alveolar ridge are louder, more strident (that’s even the linguistic term), and their carrying power – like steam escaping – has long lent to their use for attention-getting and denunciation: Sssssst! Sssshhhh!

As to the voiced ones, they have a common buzz that can tickle the tongue or lip, and they seem suggestive of motors and motion – or insects, or zippers. They’re soft but can be a bit racy, especially given the things we may encounter that sound like them.

But does it seem to you that there’s something missing in this set of sounds? Oh, quite a few things still. But one kind of sound we haven’t touched on yet is very similar to a fricative. It’s the consonant equivalent of a diphthong…